City of Columbus drafting more protections for trees
Efforts to take an organized approach to preserving and planting more trees in Columbus is expected to boost the percentage of the city covered by trees. Officials and activists say more trees in the city will keep it cooler, make it easier to breathe and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Columbus is moving forward with efforts to preserve and expand the number of trees in the city.
Just 22% of the city is covered in trees compared to 40% in places like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Louisville. But, the city has room for more. A 2015 study found Columbus has about 60,000 available acres where more trees could be planted that wouldn’t interfere with structures and green space used for other things, like fields for sports.
Though many want rules for private property, which is sure to spark controversy with landowners and developers, the city is starting with trees on publicly-owned land.
Saving Mature Trees
There are currently no regulations for trees on privately owned land, but environmental advocates and tree lovers have ideas that would preserve Columbus' trees.
Weinland Park resident Jean Pitman and Friends of the Lower Olentangy Watershed advocate Laura Fay said the city should adopt a process for the public to weigh in on the removal of individual trees on public or private land. They said there should also be a database of historic trees kept by neighborhoods that is consulted before removal.
There should also be financial assistance for those working to preserve and grow the canopy where they live, they said.
FLOW and the Weinland Park Urban Tree Nursery partner together and with “tree ambassadors'' who deliver trees to people willing to plant them. The effort started with the formation of the nursery in 2015. This past fall, they delivered 495 saplings and tripled the capacity of the nursery.
While proud of the effort, Pitman said new saplings don’t have the same impact a mature tree does.
“The best way to keep our canopy is to keep our mature trees. We’ve been losing a lot here in Columbus,” Fay said.
Mature trees absorb more carbon than saplings. They also provide more shade and animal habitats.
Fay, chairwoman of FLOW’s science committee, conducted an evaluation comparing the inches in diameter of removed mature trees in Confluence Park to the inches of new trees planted there to mitigate the trees removed. She found the new saplings have a lot of growing to do to approach the size and influence of the removed, mature trees.
The two groups also worked together recently in an effort to save trees on the site of a redevelopment project.
Pitman said they negotiated directly with the developer because there are no guidelines for trees on private land or orders requiring developers to preserve or mitigate tree loss.
The effort led to the preservation of one sycamore and an elm on East Sixth Avenue. But another was lost, Pitman said. Some of the trees in the area are estimated to be 200 years old.
“Those trees have grown there forever unhindered, just without any attention, they’ve just done their thing there for a long, long time. And that’s just astonishing. You can’t replace that. How do you replace that? You can’t,” Pitman said.
At the site, a playground, a community garden and fruit trees were also removed, Pitman said.
But the group is working with the developer to establish a fund to help people take care of the existing, mature trees in the neighborhood.
“It’s heartbreaking when there’s a tree you’ve grown up with, or lived next to for a large part of your life, and suddenly they just come and take it down and it is gone,” Pitman said. “It’s heartbreaking to lose a tree you love.”
Officials with the Recreation and Parks Department are accepting comments through the end of Friday, February 4 as part of one of several open comment periods on the reformation of city code regulating what happens to trees on public land and how problematic trees on private land should be addressed.
“The code is existing, but it is outdated, it's been decades since we have revised this chapter of city code, and it also currently doesn’t have tree replacement and mitigation within the code,” said Rosalie Hendon, environmental planner for the city.
Mitigation includes paying into a fund dedicated to trees or planting new trees after cutting others down.
While the new language is still in the drafting phase, Hendon expects the code to make into law a 2015 executive order set by the mayor. Depending on the size of the tree, the executive order requires one or more new trees to be planted, or money must be paid in to the city’s tree fund.
After the comment period is over, Hendon said the new code will be drafted, considering the input offered by the public, the goals of the city’s recently implemented Urban Forestry Master Plan and the comments of other city departments. Then, the draft will be presented for another round of comments before edits and presentation to City Council for approval.
The Urban Forestry Master Plan outlines decades-long goals and strategies to “invest long term in Columbus’ trees,” including updating and creating tree code.
Hendon said the process is expected to last through late spring or early summer, though the timeline isn’t set in stone. Once the process is complete, Hendon said the department has other goals to accomplish, including a new study of the city’s canopy cover.
See the entire Columbus Urban Forestry Master Plan here.
“Our tree canopy, or tree-canopy cover, is the percent of land in the city that is covered by trees. So, if you’re looking at the city from the air, what percent of our land in Columbus is covered by trees?” Hendon said.
Updates to the code are expected to help the city reach its goal of reaching 40 percent canopy coverage in 30 years.
“We believe trees are so important, and this is held up in the literature, that trees are just key to residents’ quality of life — they’re filtering the air, they’re reducing flooding, they’re cooling homes and they’re just making our city more vibrant and walkable and resilient,” Hendon said.
Tree canopies reduce the occurrence of “heat islands” in cities, according to the master plan. In cities, “structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun's heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
A 2013 study found the average coverage was at 22 percent, but the figure hasn’t been updated since. So, it is unclear if the amount of trees in the city have increased or decreased. But in the same time period, the city has grown in population and in construction sites.
Take for example Charlotte, N.C. It recorded, and still records a significantly higher tree canopy coverage than Columbus. But, that swiftly growing city saw a decrease in trees.
Charlotte’s canopy dropped from 49 percent in 2012 to 45 percent in 2018 – that’s more than three football fields worth of trees a day, according to the group Trees Charlotte.
Columbus’ percent of tree coverage is an average, meaning some neighborhoods have more coverage, while others have less.
A part of the city’s forestry plan includes bringing equity to the distribution of trees. The city found many of the neighborhoods lacking trees correspond with areas traditionally discriminated against through redlining.
University Area Commissioner Doreen Uhas Sauer calls these areas “tree deserts.”
“It’s very unequal and so, just as you can have food deserts where you can’t find a grocery store, there are places in Columbus you can drive and think, ‘My god, what happened to all the trees? It looks like a tornado went through here and they’ve never been replaced,” Uhas Sauer said.
The Clintonville neighborhood, where home-loan seekers were often white and did not experience the historic share of discrimination by banks and real estate firms, recorded tree coverage at 41 percent, while “significant portions of redlined neighborhoods are among the lowest in urban canopy coverage, such as Franklinton, Milo-Grogan and South Linden,” the city’s forestry plan states.
Uhas Sauer said in addition to more planting in public spaces, the city should do more to protect existing trees in the “tree yard” or “devil’s strip,” the bit of public land between a sidewalk and a street.
Many urban trees are lost to sidewalks. Their roots push up the walkway which can create unsafe conditions. Often, the city moves to cut down the tree.
“We call them tree-sidewalk-conflicts and they are definitely a problem with public trees,” Hendon said.
“Often, it is a problem with the growing space. Basically, you want to have the largest tree you can, because that provides the most benefits, but if the soil volume isn’t enough to support that tree or the roots, then you get those conflicts where tree roots are heaving sidewalks.”
The forestry plan includes efforts to ensure the right-sized trees and species are selected for certain spaces.
Uhas Sauer said Columbus should learn from other cities and, instead of chopping the tree down, replace sections of sidewalk with rubberized mats made to look like concrete to preserve a tree disrupting a walkway.
“This is not a new material, but it is a recycled-tire material that can be used for sidewalks and quite honestly, you can take out an old part of a sidewalk and replace it with these, and the tree is allowed to grow, it also helps drain storm water the right way,” Uhas Sauer said.